What Can We Steal from Vic Sizemore’s “Freedom’s Just Another Word”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Freedom’s Just Another Word,” short story
Author: Vic Sizemore (on Twitter @VicSizemore)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story appears in Issue 13 of Fiction Fix, a beautiful online journal that can even be downloaded in PDF. (The same issue even features a cool story by the great Ira Sukrungruang.)
Bonuses: Here‘s “As the Spirit Moves,” a story Mr. Sizemore published in PANK. Mr. Sizemore seems to also enjoy writing essays about religious topics. And here is a video of Mr. Sizemore reading his work for you.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Openings
Nadine’s in trouble. In a brief introductory section, she learns that she’s being charged with the accidental death of a police officer. Her children are in the care of CPS. Poor Nadine is in shock as she sits in the police station. What happened? We find out in the next section. Nadine doesn’t have much money, but she does have three children. The oldest wants shoes in which he can play basketball…she can’t afford it. She decides to load her kids into the old van for a road trip; she gets pulled over because of her out-of-state plates. (Fortunately, she wasn’t nabbed for not having insurance.) Her license is suspended for non-payment of that first ticket, which is a problem months later when a police officer notices her expired inspection sticker. Instead of stopping, Nadine peels away from the officer and loses the guy on the familiar streets. Well, it turns out that the officer hit a tree during the pursuit and has died. The ending section returns to the dramatic present. All Nadine wanted to do was spend a nice (and cheap) night with her children. She begins to weep for a number of reasons.
This story grabbed me immediately and I couldn’t put it down until I finished. Isn’t that a wonderful experience? Mr. Sizemore got my attention immediately in the tried-and-true fashion. He mentioned a big crime and children being kept from a parent and plants his protagonist in a police station, Hitchcock-style. Mr. Sizemore made a big choice regarding the structure of the story that colors how we view what happens. The story features a frame; Nadine’s misadventure is the sandwich inside two slices of fresh-baked police station bread. One of the hardest things—at least for me—is figuring out WHEN THE STORY REALLY STARTS. What if Mr. Sizemore had just started with the second section? With “The cause of her trouble…”? Well, it’s a trade-off. Here’s a cost/benefit analysis in retaining the structure as is.
|The whole story is colored by the sad image of the mother in the police station and the aftermath of the crash we don’t know about yet.||There’s expectation placed on the events of the story instead of learning about Nadine’s struggles piece by piece.|
|A mystery is established. What happened to the police officer?||The reader may be a little prejudiced against Nadine because of what she did. Without the frame, we’re more likely to be sad for the very poor woman with children.|
It’s up to you to decide what feeling you want to create in the reader and this feeling is dictated by where you begin in the narrative present. There’s no inherent right or wrong; you must do your own cost/benefit analysis to decide the REAL opening of your story.
Easy confession: I don’t like doing math in a story. I don’t like doing math in real life. Don’t get me wrong; I love math and science and everything, but I became a writer, in part, so I never ever have to find the derivative of a quadratic equation or whatever. Sometimes, writers will ask their readers to do a lot of math.
Four years ago, seventeen-year-old Sally grabbed two dozen envelopes from the box, thought of the number of guests who would attend her party and put thirteen back.
I dunno…that sentence asks me to do too many calculations. Mr. Sizemore invites the reader to do the good kind of math. There are all kinds of figures in the story…the amount of money Nadine had to pay for car insurance (but didn’t), the amount of money Nadine has in her pocket. The increasing fines she owes on her tickets. The money she has left over from her paycheck in comparison with how much she spends on her childrens’ fun night at home. (Dollar frozen pizzas.) Mr. Sizemore isn’t forcing you to find a pencil and a piece of scrap paper. Instead, these numbers reinforce the struggle Nadine is going through, the struggle that gets her into so much trouble.
What Should We Steal?
- Decide where your story really starts. Each story is different and where you place the beginning will shape how the reader perceives your narrative.
- Refrain from giving your reader math homework. Be sure that you’re inviting the reader to do the good kinds of calculation, not the hard kinds. Readers shouldn’t be forced to find a calculator to enjoy your story.